The challenges facing Ebrahim Raisi, Iran’s new president

In an unsurprising, though controversial result, Ebrahim Raisi has been announced as the eighth president of the Iran. An arch conservative chief justice, who until now has never held elected office, the outcome will no doubt be welcomed within the circles of supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni, whose long-standing feud with incumbent president Hassan Rouhani has been well-documented.

 

Though, the result is unlikely to see Rouhani’s more liberal and global approach disappear completely. Despite the likelihood of Raisi swinging the presidency dramatically to the right, and transforming the Iranian executive into a conservative united front, vestiges of a reformist agenda remain a consistently tricky thorn in the side of the regime.

 

For all intents and purposes, the election was a sham: a 48.8% turnout, down a staggering 25% compared with the vote which re-elected Rouhani in 2017. Alongside the reported 3.7 million blank, or “white ballots”, it is clear that the Iranian electorate were voicing a degree of protest at the limited choices on offer within this election, either by deliberately spoiling their ballots, or through not voting altogether.

 

In this regard, the 62% margin of victory recorded in favour of Raisi, while ostensibly a majority, must be qualified the overwhelming lack of enthusiasm in his candidacy. He is a regime-favourite, and in many respects, it seems that only Khamenei and the clerical inner circle will greet the news positively. In reality, despite the veneer of democratic consent within these elections, the process of selecting candidates ensures a degree of control by the regime. Despite the emergence of 600 candidates to stand in the election, the Council of Guardians (who are in charge of vetting and approving candidatures), barred all but seven from standing. These included not only current voices for reform but also previous presidents who have since clashed with Khamenei, including Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

 

Of those allowed to run, only Abdolnaser Hemmati could claim to represent a plausibly moderate presidential agenda, and despite some hopes that he could benefit from a voting split among conservative candidates, allowing him to encourage a reformist surge in a second round poll, three right-wing candidates conspicuously pulled out prior to the poll, allowing Raisi to surge to victory immediately.

 

So what does his victory mean for Iran going forward? Internationally, Raisi is most prominently remembered as a judge on the so-called “death panel” in 1988, which ordered the executions of up to 5,000 political prisoners. He is the subject of United States sanctions, and has been noted for human rights abuses by Amnesty International. In a climate of existing hostility between the west and Iran, Raisi’s ascent will undoubtedly make diplomats across the world nervous. This is especially so in light of current talks in Vienna which many hope will repair the 2015 Nuclear deal, something which the more internationally open-minded Rouhani prioritised in his first term, only to be thwarted not by fellow Iranians, but US President Donald Trump. Raisi has encouragingly voiced support for the deal, echoing Khamenei’s recent stance in favour of it, but this is most likely a calculation intended to facilitate the easing of tough international sanctions, rather than any embrace of international cooperation.

 

The strain caused by sanctions has been compounded by Covid-19, and the lack of access to international aid was a major sticking point in US-Iranian relations throughout 2020, though as well as the continued economic impact of the pandemic, and the controversy surrounding sanctions more broadly, Iran’s economy is deeply fractured. A prominent aspect of Raisi’s campaign was a pledge to end state corruption, and the frequent political graft exercised in recent years. Echoing the pledges of fellow populists across the world, many are weary that an anti-corruption platform will not necessarily result in better governance, but greater curtailments of liberty in the name of a more responsible state.

 

Thought of as a potential future supreme leader (Khamenei is after all 82), Raisi’s presidency may be the regime’s attempt to place him in the optimal position to assume the leadership, providing a unity in the upper-echelons of Iranian government which was absent during Rouhani’s frequent clashes with the clerics. Though, in light of the backlash surrounding the election, the regime may be sacrificing whatever democratic legitimacy they claimed to possess, and in turn facilitating instability from the electorate, in favour of a more streamlined and single-minded executive.

 

Image: Hara1603 on Wikimedia Commons

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